What does it take to fall in love with Alaska?
For some of us, not much. Maybe it’s a job or a spouse that brings us north. Or, perhaps it’s stepping off a plane and getting one look at the mountains. Perhaps it’s a wilderness experience that seals the deal.
For John Hall, his first taste of Alaska came in June 1955. That’s when his dad brought him along at age 12 on a trip up the Alaska Highway.
“My dad had a friend in Fairbanks who complained that they couldn’t get fresh eggs,” said Hall. “So Dad got a truck with 500 cases of eggs. We followed the truck all the way to Fairbanks in a 1947 Cadillac.”
Hall and his father spent four days in Fairbanks. “Back home in Minnesota, my curfew was when the streetlights came on. But in June, in Fairbanks … well. I absolutely loved it,” he said.
Hall fell in love with Alaska, so much so that he’s spent his life showing off the state for 40 years with his company, John Hall’s Alaska.
I met Hall in the lobby of the Hotel Captain Cook, where his crew threw a party to celebrate the anniversary. Afterwards, Hall and a busload of visitors will spend 19 days seeing the best of Alaska, with stops at Knik River Lodge, Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Tok, Whitehorse, Watson Lake … all the way to Seattle.
It took Hall a few years to get back to Alaska. He grew up in the hospitality business, since his family owned the Anderson House Hotel in Wabasha, Minnesota.
“It’s the oldest hotel in Minnesota,” said Hall. “It opened in 1856.”
Although Hall’s family sold the hotel, they bought it back 11 years later. Hall left his job with a hotel management company to renovate the hotel and bring back its “Pennsylvania Dutch” cooking.
While the hotel was successful in the summer, business dropped off in the fall. “We needed to supplement our income,” he said.
So he bought a bus in 1982. After doing some short tours the first year and a longer trip to Florida, Hall said “I’m going to take these people to Alaska.”
Hall’s first trip, in 1983, was 31 days long. Hall drove west from Minnesota to Seattle, where he rolled on to the Alaska Marine Highway to Skagway. From there, the group headed north to Whitehorse and Fairbanks. Then, it was off to Denali National Park, to Anchorage, Homer and Seward.
“There were 47 people on the tour and we filled the coach,” said Hall.
Just as Hall’s father brought him up at age 12, Hall brought his son, also named John, up at age 7.
“My daughter Elizabeth came to Alaska on her 6th birthday,” said Hall.
During the summer months, Hall’s company has tours running all over the state. Some travelers start or end their trip with a cruise. But Hall also charters ships from Allen Marine in Sitka to offer a hybrid cruise-land tour. Guests spend a few days in Sitka at a hotel and use the chartered boat for day trips. Then, the group moves to Juneau by boat and then there are daytrips from there, with overnight accommodations at local hotels.
During his 40 years leading tours, Hall has fine-tuned the amenities on his coaches, where guests spend a lot of time. There is a galley and a restroom and more room between the seats.
Hall also has his kids working at the company: John, Joe and Elizabeth. The team splits up during the winter to do informational presentations in the Lower 48.
John Hall works in Florida during the winter. Hall always stops at The Villages, a well-known retirement community near Orlando. “These people have the time and the money for a trip like ours. It’s a perfect demographic,” he said.
“We don’t sell anything at our presentations,” said Hall. “They are strictly informational. I want them to know what to expect, what they will see and do.”
Hall encourages travelers to check out other tour options. “You might find we’re priced a little higher. But we include all meals, all gratuities and admission to all attractions,” he said.
Hall’s travelers also get a distinctive blue jacket on the trip. While we were talking at the hotel, two guests came over to say hello in their blue jackets. On the back, they had embroidered the years they had taken Alaska tours. “We have some folks who have been on 10 tours with us,” said Hall.
While Hall’s company offers many Alaska itineraries, he likes the national park itineraries the best.
“I think our National Park tours are the gold standard,” he said.
The tour is limited to 26 passengers, because of the logistics involving small planes. Travelers will see six national parks: Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Wrangell-St. Elias, Denali, Lake Clark and Gates of the Arctic. The tour is 14 days long, although guests can add a cruise through Southeast Alaska and see a seventh park: Glacier Bay.
Hall has no plans to retire. He’s having too much fun. We talked about landing in Anaktuvuk Pass to see the Gates of the Arctic National Park. Then there was the time he ate a piece of whale in Utqiagvik. Hall had several stories about how he solved problems when a bridge washed out or a road was closed.
Still, Hall does admit that things have changed in 40 years. “I brought my son, Joe, on a tour with me when he was 8 years old. I was driving and he was serving coffee to the guests,” he said. “Today, on our 40th anniversary tour, Joe is driving and I’m serving the coffee.”